A book review: The Brand Flip, by Marty Neumeir

(or, What can marketing learn from trout fishing)

Early trout fishermen probably never considered releasing a landed trout back into the water. Trout were prey, and few fishermen thought much about improving the lives of trout. Pictures from 40+ years ago often showed anglers proudly standing beside long stringers holding dozens of

trout. But, beginning in the 1950’s, a few respected anglers began to promote a different perspective.[1] It was partly self-serving, as they realized continuing to harvest large numbers of trout would eventually decimate the population and limit fishing opportunities for everyone. Also, an evolving esthetic considered trout to be “special,” partly because they are beautiful and live in beautiful places. Thus, trout deserve to be protected. The catch-and-release ethic gained momentum. Wildlife scientists began to study trout and the environments they need to thrive. Organizations such as Trout Unlimited championed grass roots and government action to enhance trout habitat.

In many ways, anglers’ changing orientations to trout and trout fishing is a metaphor for what is happening in marketing. Marty Neumeier (author of The Brand Gap and Zap) describes many of those changes in his latest book: The Brand Flip: Why Customers Now Run Companies — and How to Profit from It. He explains the brand flip simply: “A brand is not owned by the company, but by the customers who draw meaning from it. Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”

In other words, who has the power has flipped. Once manufacturers held the cards, then retailers gained more control. But now, fueled by technology (easy information search, on-line purchasing, sharing brand reviews on social media, etc.), consumers are in the driver’s seat…and they like it. How consumers relate to brands (and companies) has flipped.

Neumeir identifies his first brand flip: “People are not focused on products, but meaning.” People (and many savvy marketers) no longer think of a brand as an assembly of tangible physical characteristics and functionality. They are more interested in the psychological and emotional meanings they experience by owning and using the brand. Establishing and maintaining a desired identity is an even deeper and more personally relevant meaning.

Partly, maybe largely, personal identity needs are satisfied by associating with like-minded people who also use the same products or brands. That observation leads to another flip: “People no longer buy brands. They join brands.” Rather than thinking of brand segments, marketers should be thinking of brand tribes. Neumeir points out, “You don’t target a tribe.” Rather, marketers should support and nurture a brand tribe.

Neumeir organizes his book around 18 specific flips — dramatic changes in how brands (and companies) relate to customers. A fairly familiar flip is “features to experiences.” Consumers are more interested in the psychological and emotional experiences they derive from a brand than its physical features (How do I feel when using the brand?). Identity experiences (How does this brand help me become the person I want to be?) are increasingly important for many consumers. Brands that provide desired emotional and identity experiences will enjoy the strongest relationships with consumers.

Another brand flip is the change from “authority to authenticity.” Customers no longer accept the authority of brands (or companies) just because they are large or have been around a long time. Instead customers seek authenticity — brands that reflect honesty, fairness, and transparency. Brands like Apple, Coca-Cola, or Starbucks are seen as authentic because they consistently express their core values and guiding purpose (even though each has strayed from their principles on occasion).

One more brand flip is “over-choice to simplicity.” Many companies continue to provide consumers with more and more choices — yet another type or flavor of toothpaste or another sub-brand of beer. That may seem like a customer orientation, but in many ways creating more choices causes problems for customers. Brands that simplify consumers’ decisions are likely to generate greater brand loyalty.

We could quibble about the book’s title. “Flip” is a catchy metaphor that implies a quick shift in orientation. However, most of Neumeir’s brand flips have happened gradually over years or decades; many are works in process.

One of Neumeir’s most provocative implications builds on Peter Drucker’s famous declaration that only innovation and marketing are fundamental aspects of a business. Besides developing new products and services (and branding them), Neumeir believes companies should be innovating customers. That is, marketing should be focused on helping people improve their lives. By helping people become more authentic, unique, valued, self-actualized, and protected, a company creates new customers. Although a brand has a role to play, it is not the hero of the customer’s narrative. Marketers innovate customers by helping people feel heroic.

I recommend The Brand Flip. Like all of Neumeir’s books, it is a quick and breezy read, yet full of intriguing ideas. You actually might want to re-read it. The book nicely frames how the practice (and theory) of marketing is changing, perhaps gradually for now, but with growing momentum. Like the old-time anglers who just wanted to catch (and eat) a lot of trout, much current marketing practice reveals a predator’s perspective that treats consumers as prey to be targeted and harvested. However, like fishermen who appreciate trout for their own sake, some firms are thinking of customers first as people who deserve to be understood and valued on their own terms. Companies and marketing managers that resist that vision may be surprised when Neumeir’s flipped relationships between brands and consumers arrive more quickly than expected. We all should be flipping how we think about, and interact with, our customers.

[1] The idea of catch and release originated in 19th century Britain, and that ethos gained support in the US 100 years later. Lee Wulff was among the first to advocate releasing trout back into the water to live and reproduce and provide sport for other anglers. Lefty Kreh continues to be an advocate. If you want to know more, check out: http://www.anglerscovey.com/blogs/anglers-blog/2012/12/7/catch-and-release-a-brief-history-and-ethical-practices.

Jerry Olson is Managing Partner at Olson Zaltman.